Jodie Chiemi Ching
“Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki ….” is how the chorus goes in Braddah Iz’s song “Tengoku Kara Kaminari (Thunder From the Heavens)” – the song that celebrates an era in the 1990s when Hawai‘i dominated grand sumo wrestling in Japan. That was the last time I was a fangirl watching our Japanese American giants regularly on television with my family. So it only made sense that I would binge watch all eight episodes of “Sanctuary” on Nextflix with my mom in two days. After catching glimpses of us watching the show, my dad also watched eight episodes in two days.
It wasn’t just the nostalgia of rooting for your favorite sumo wrestler; in “Sanctuary” Kiyoshi Oze (Wataru Ichinose) is the diamond in the rough that you can’t help but cheer for. In the opening scene, he is thrown into a wall over and over, covered with blood and sand from the floor of the practice dohyo at the Ensho Stable. He’s been there for six months being thrown around and beaten by the stable’s best wrestlers.
Prior to the start of his sumo training he was a former judo champion and a juvenile delinquent in Fukuoka, Japan. He would mug people and strip them down for cash, in order to save the eight million yen he needs to get out of the city (so far, he has 5,000). His parents used to own a sushi restaurant in the city, but they lost it when his father’s debts got to be too much for them to handle. Back in Fukuoka, Kiyoshi has to deal with his feeble father and promiscuous mother, and he’s miserable.
I cheered for Kiyoshi from the beginning; for him to find healing from all of his internal rage and frustration. He gets beat up, bullied and progress in the dohyo is painfully slow because he is rebellious, disrespectful and stubborn. The fledgling sumo uses dirty street fighting tactics when practicing with the other wrestlers, steals food from their plate and doesn’t bow when entering the practice area. Kiyoshi continues to persist (because, what else does he have going for him?); slowly we get more and more glimpses of his softer side.
When Kiyoshi’s father lands in the hospital, he devises a way to make some extra money to pay the bills. He secretly has one of the members take photos of the other wrestlers in the shower or while changing clothes and sells them for extra cash. Illegal? Yes. But it’s the thought that counts, right? When times are hard, he also takes out a 5,000-yen bill that his father gave him as oiwai (celebratory monetary gift) for training at Ensho Stable. Perhaps it’s to remind him of his father’s love. The touching moment gives the watcher hope for Kiyoshi, the gentle giant. I’m not the only one cheering him on …
Meanwhile, two reporters come to the stable in order to do a story on the Ensho Stable’s struggle back to relevance. Tonkitsu (Tomorowo Taguchi) is a veteran reporter who has been on the sumo beat for ages. His mission is to tell his last great story: Ensho’s comeback. He brings with him Asuka Kunishima (Shiori Kutsuna), a young American-born reporter who got kicked off of the newspaper’s political desk and criticizes the brutality and sexist men that run rampant at the stable. After a particularly violent practice, she offers her card to Kiyoshi and says that she could help expose all of the brutality, but he simply tells her that “you’ve got no money and you’ve got no boobs. I’m not interested.”
The reporter Kunishima and sumo wrestler Kiyoshi are two hotheaded young adults who think they know better than their mentors. Part of the intrigue of watching “Sanctuary” is seeing the two mature while trying to navigate the dark parts of the sumo world that is woven into the 1,500-year-old traditions, protocols and practices of the sport. It reminded me a little of my own experience of practicing classical Okinawan music in a dojo in Okinawa. While I didn’t have to endure any bullying or the emotional and physical trauma that Kiyoshi faced; I could relate to the discipline, respect and diligence required to reach a goal. I know what it feels like to not progress as quickly as I had hoped, but ultimately accomplishing more than I ever imagined for myself because others saw my potential. It fills your heart to endure so much and have people lift you up in spite of the naysayers.
There is one fundamental I need to point out: shiko. It’s not like oshiko (urine); instead, shiko is the famous sumo squat that has been the foundation of sumo for over a thousand years. The sequence of shiko is: squat low, lift one leg and stretch it, put it down and do the other side. Kiyoshi denies the effectiveness of shiko, until he starts getting tired of not being able to have the leg strength he needs to push his opponents, and being defeated over and over again. Eventually there is a turning point where he eventually practices shiko to the point of obsession. His skill then takes a turn for the better and the people around him begin to notice.
If you’re like me, at some point while watching the series, you will feel compelled to try doing shiko. I found the repetitive movement relaxing and meditative – like yoga. Other friends who viewed “Sanctuary” confessed to doing shiko as a result of watching the show. If you want to go down the shiko rabbit hole, check out this educational video from Sumostew (entitled “Shinko, the sumo exercise you need to try”): youtu.be/o-NIaV_-ZpM.
There is one more memorable character that is worth mentioning: Shimizu (Shota Sometani). He is the skinniest wrestler in Ensho and was the only one doing worse than Kiyoshi. But while Shimizu knows he doesn’t have what it takes, he follows Kiyoshi when he runs away from the stable and tells him that he has a gift that he shouldn’t squander. Shimizu isn’t as strong but loves sumo; he becomes a yobidashi, an “usher,” who announces the names of the sumo challengers at the beginning of a match.
By now, Kiyoshi has earned his sumo name, Enno, and Shimizu, Kunishima, Ensho’s Oyakata (Pierre Taki) and I (from the other side of the screen) are all rooting for Enno’s win against the formidable antagonist Shizuuchi (Hiroki Hishofuji). Shimizu is always at Enno’s side reminding him that he is on a journey to become a yokozuna, sumo’s highest rank.
I won’t reveal in detail the many emotional and physical blows Kiyoshi will take living the sumo life; he takes many and they are unforgiving. Eventually he is able to channel his rage and becomes a more humble, healed, but fierce warrior of a wrestler. There is a big question at the end. When searching the internet for any clues of a possible Season 2, there is nothing official as of the writing of this article, but many are hoping to see more of Kiyoshi’s sumo journey. Netflix, if you are listening, we want to see Enno become a yokozuna in the worst way!
Jodie Chiemi Ching is an author, poet and a former editor of The Hawai‘i Herald. She and her husband Alex also run their mom-and-pop shop Island Vee Dub, a brick and mortar in Kaimukï specializing in vintage Volkswagen parts and accessories.